Exhaling the Breath of Life

Ubuntu Theater Project's Rashomon builds on the short story that Akira Kurosawa's film made famous.

Pages of crumpled typewriter paper form a crude circle around the set of Philip Kan Gotanda’s Rashomon. It looks like a messy white nest made from a thousand origami cranes that have come crashing to the ground. Three characters make a circle of their own as they walk around the man who’s imagined them into being. The author, Akutagawa (Steven Ho), is about to involve them all in a story told from their own points of view.

To shape his play, Gotanda exhumes the source material — “In a Grove” and “Rashomon” — two short stories by Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Unlike Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film adaptation of the same name, the playwright fictionalizes the author’s ghost and includes him in the narrative as an occasionally benevolent and occasionally sadistic puppet-master. When he breathes in and — dramatically — out, his characters, formerly in a state of repose, spring to life.

As the story gains momentum, this interaction between the artist and his creations becomes incantatory. We’re witnessing a transference, from the writer’s mind to the actors as they come to inhabit his characters. It’s a conceit that enriches this theatrical staging. In a movie, a similar approach would look like a parlor trick. However, in order to suspend your disbelief, you have to wait out the first, linguistically abstract, 15 minutes of the play.

If you haven’t read the short stories or seen the film, the playwright isn’t interested in orienting an unknowing audience — until, at one of the early transitions, he does. From that point forward, Gotanda builds in an urgency to the characters’ emotional states of mind. He provides each actor with a relentless sense of purpose: to have his or her own version of the story believed to be the truth.   

Someone has murdered a samurai (Jomar Tagatac) and someone, presumably the same person, has also raped his wife (Christine Jamlig). A bandit (Ogie Zulueta) is the primary suspect, but all three present their cases to the audience — even the samurai does from the afterlife as an unhappy apparition. Each member of the cast also has a dual role. Tagatac’s other character is a woodcutter, the one who discovers the samurai’s corpse in a bamboo grove.

Tagatac’s easy display of wit was well-matched to his recent, largely ironic roles in Christopher Chen’s Caught at Shotgun Players and Mia Chung’s You For Me For You at Crowded Fire Theater. Here, as the samurai and the woodcutter, he must sustain their inner lives for the duration. He performs this feat by combining the cerebral with the physical — we can see him deliberating his next course of action even if we can’t anticipate the decisions he’ll settle upon.

Tagatac shares some exemplary swordfighting scenes with Jamlig and Zulueta. But underneath the murder mystery and the deliberate obfuscation about who’s telling the truth, Gotanda manages to engage the audience with something more meaningful than plot resolution. He has each character struggle in their own way with Hamlet’s troubling question, “To be, or not to be …” They’ve all got something crucial to lose, something essential that holds a person’s identity together. That’s where Gotanda adds in that feeling of urgency to his Rashomon.

It only compounds the poignancy of this production to learn that Akutagawa, one of the 20th-century’s preeminent short story writers, committed suicide in 1927 at the age of 35. In the play, he appears to be giving up the breath of his own life so that his characters will live on after he’s gone.

Rashomon, through Sept. 17, at Ubuntu Theater Project, 1433 12th Ave., Oakland, 510-646-1126 or ubuntutheaterproject.com.

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